Shooting in Cemeteries By Jim Fisher

jimfishercemet

Shooting in Cemeteries

By Jim Fisher

Steve’s recent post on Post Mortem Photography got me thinking about one of my favorite photographic subjects: Old graveyards.

’m happy to live in a part of the US with a long settled history, the north east. I’m a short drive away from a few very old burying grounds, including notable ones like Sleepy Hollow in Tarrytown, N.Y. (the resting place of Washington Irving, the author who created the Headless Horseman), and Green-Wood in Brooklyn.

It was stumbling onto Sleepy Hollow that sparked my interest. I had spent an autumn day in 2008 visiting Irving’s estate, and wanted to tap it off with a visit to his grave. I didn’t have a lot of time to explore, light was getting scarce, but I’ve since returned to spend more time looking for interesting monuments and scenes.

SleepyHollow-00004-X3

GreenWoodA1-00007-X3

It’s interesting to me to see how the art of carving headstones changed over the years. Modern stones tend to be fairly conservative, squarish, and—to my eye—largely uninteresting. But turning back the clock to the late 1800s shows that large, carved statues were popular (at least for those who could afford them). When you move back to the early part of that century and into the late 1700s you see simple stones, sometimes with inlaid carved illustrations.

Of course, after a few hundred years, details give way to erosion, pieces of sculptures break off, and stones crack. There’s obviously some maintenance done to active graveyards, but for the large part you see what spending scores of years with constant exposure to the elements can do to sculpture and carved stones.

BelairgonGreenWood-00001-X3

FMN-00176-X3

There’s also a sense of peace. I commute into Manhattan five days a week. It’s a grind, packed into a overcrowded train, and braving the elements over the half-mile from Penn Station to my office (and back again in the evening). After nine hours I get to turn around and do it all over again. There are opportunities for photographs, but they are generally those fleeting moments that present themselves when street shooting.

Among the graves, I get to take my time, look for my shot. If I find an interesting monument I can take my time and think about how I want to approach it. Should I isolate a specific detail? Simply try to capture it in its entirety? Or go a bit wider and try and get a good landscape shot? (That’s an area where my eye struggles at times.)

UpperOctorara-00001-X3

GreenWoodM240-00025-X3

My favorite spot is the Deckertown-Union Cemetery in western New Jersey. It’s an old graveyard in a rural area. The grounds are wooded, largely on a huge hill. The terrain is rough, and the burials date back to the Revolutionary War. There aren’t a lot of ornate sculptures there, just more simple, weathered stones. The first time I went there I was working with some Lensbabies, but I’ve since shot it with more traditional lenses.

LafayetteDeckertown-00030-X3

GreenWoodM240-00019-X3

L1020117

As for gear (I couldn’t stop by Steve’s home without bringing that up!), it varies. If I’m shooting for myself, I love taking my Rolleiflex Automat K4, a 1950 TLR with a Zeiss Opton-Tessar 75mm f/3.5 lens. I’ve got a set of Rolleinar close-up filters for macro work, and the shallow depth of field that working close with a medium format camera gets you can create some really unique results.

Primarily I consider myself a rangefinder shooter, and one of the first places I took the M240 was to Green-Wood. But I don’t often use my M3. I’m more likely to take a 35mm SLR, if only for the sake of having depth of field preview available. (A Nikon F3, Pentax KX, or Canon A-1 may make the trip depending on my mood.) In the digital world, the Ricoh GR has become a favorite carry-anywhere camera over the past few months, and I’ve found that its 28mm field of view works quite well for me.

 

MidOctorara-00010-X3

L1020117

And, if I’m shooting for work, anything goes. I’ve used graveyards as subjects for everything from the Nikon D7100 to the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 to the Lomo Horizon panoramic camera (and others that I’m forgetting.

Jim Fisher is the Senior Digital Camera Analyst at PCMag.com. He also posts photos, an occasionally finds time to write, at his personal blog, daguerreotyping.com

For more Cemetery photography check out Steve’s old Violin Annie post HERE

Related Post

22 Comments

  1. My favorite is your first photo,hands down. I personally feel that there isn’t a more beautiful place to shoot than in a cemetery, some of the sculptures are just breathtaking. My favorite is the Bonaventure Cemetery near Thunderbolt,GA. Thank you for the interesting article and beautiful photos.

  2. Great essay, and great shots, Jim. I actually just made my first venture out to Green-Wood yesterday. After living in Manhattan for 10 years, I can’t believe that this treasure was a few minutes away and I hadn’t found it before. I can’t wait to see what I got. Thanks for the tips on other cemeteries nearby, I’ll have to check some out.

  3. I really love your photos. I think number four is my favorite – l love the bokeh. I, too, like to shoot in cemeteries, and I have yet to have any residents complain. Living the the southeast, our cemeteries are not quite as old, although Savannah, GA’s Colonial Park Cemetery was established in 1850. Another great cemetery for photography is Atlanta’s Oakland, particularly at night.

    • Savannah was on the short list of honeymoon destinations, but we went north instead to Cape Cod. But I was definitely intrigued by the “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” cemeteries that are down there.

      The clinging angel shot that you like is also one of my favorites. I liked it enough to print it; it’s hanging behind me in my office. It was shot in North Carolina at the Oakwood cemetery in Raleigh.

      You can follow me on twitter if you’d like a photo of the day stream (and other random thoughts); I’m currently running the series from Green-Wood on my blog. Glad you enjoyed these!

  4. Great work. I was looking for an ideal location for trying out a new used lens. I have found an African American cemetery that might offer up some good images. Thanks

  5. “Precious George” is a technically stunning picture, shot at 2.0, I suspect. The 50 Summicron APO is very impressive. But my favorite image is the angel clinging to the cross. If you haven’t been there, I suggest you visit the Civil War cemeteries around Richmond and at Gettysburg. Nice work.

    • Jack, Yep. It was shot wide open at f/2. I had the lens on loan for a couple of weeks and was impressed by its well, perfection. If I stumble upon that one again (it’s a really stunning, unique monument) I might try the same shot with my old Summitar—probably have a bit more character to it with that lens.

      Thanks for the tips on Gettysburg and Richmond. My parents aren’t too far away from the former, maybe a couple hours in the car, but for some reason have never made it out that way. Would like to at some point. I spent some time at the Manassas battlefield the last time I passed through Virginia.

    • Thanks for the comments, all!

      It’s a mishmash. The top image is Ektar 100 with the Rolleiflex Automat. Next one down (one hand over heart, other hand broken off) is also Ektar, but with the Canon A-1 and 50mm f/1.8 FD lens.

      The wide shot of the circular stone is the Lomo Belair, with the Belairgon 114mm and Ilford SFX 200.

      The next B&W shot of the angel clinging to the cross is the M9-P and Canon 50mm f/1.2 LTM.

      The color shot of the mausoleum is with the Ricoh GR.

      “Precious Georgie” is with the M240 and 50mm APO Summicron.

      Wife of Van Ranselaer Adams is the Rollei with Ilford HP5.

      The green Jesus with heart is the M240 and 40mm Summicron C.

      Washington Irving is the M8 and 35mm Summilux ASPH

      And “At Rest” is the Rollei with Rolleinar 2 close-up filters and Ilford Delta 100

  6. Great images and info. I’ve been eyeing our local place of rest for doing a shoot for months now. Thanks for the added inspiration.

  7. Totally agree with your essay. You can post images of individual headstones on the Find A Grave website. Those Find A Grave images have been very helpful to me in trying to find my family’s history.

Comments are closed.